Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Film: Wild Things

You know, there’s that thin, vibrating line where something bad actually becomes good. There are bad films, and then there are so bad things that you just have to laugh at clumsiness with which they were made. And then there are films that are so bad that you can’t really say whether they were meant as a parody or not. Take “Signs”, for example, a film notorious for having aliens who can be killed with water, coming to conquer planed consisting ¾ of water. This film, from beginning to the end a rip off of all “watch the sky” films and TV shows, but also of several horror standards, is so much a mess of a film that it’s creators later claimed that it was intended to be a farce; Not enough to convince me, though.

And then there is “Wild things”, my favourite bad film. Yep, it’s that film in which youngster Denise Richards shows her B00BZ. A film made by stock director John McNaughton, was riding a wave of sex thrillers; But what separated this film from others was a complete lack of regard to anything but sex scenes, with hilarious results. You’ll see how time is measured by sex scenes in this film. These characters live from one sex scene to the other. And if that’s the case, they should’ve at least put more of such scenes. Instead, there is one actual sex scene, cut short so that authors could later sell uncut version too, and two teasers.

It’s actually kind of sad that this film that should be considered rotten-tomato classic, remains forgotten, buried under the pile of slightly more memorable sex thrillers made during nineties. Those who come to see the film will probably come for sex. Disappointed by overall lack of it (they’re all already shown in trailer anyway), they’ll hardly bother to notice how stupidly funny the film is.

But let’s start from the beginning.

Oh, wait, one more thing: I just want to say that this film is probably the most embarrassing for good actors who took a part in it: Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon, Theresa Russell, and good comedian Bill Murray who seems to think that there’s no such thing as bad film. Particularly Dillon, Kopola’s fave neighborhood gangster, tells some of the stupidest and driest lines in this flick; And while Murray manages to be funny and Bacon to be intriguing, Russell’s role here is more a cameo than a real role, so I can’t really figure out why a respectable actress like her agreed to lend her appearance to this mess. As for Denise Richards and Neve Campbell, they’ve never outgrown roles of teenage sex symbols anyway.

Now we can start from the beginning:

We meet Sam Lombardo (Dillon), high-school guidance councilor; We meet Kelly van Ryan, a rich momma’s daughter, always flirting with Lombardo. She is, of course, called Van Ryan because all rich American families have surnames that sound exotic. We meet another high-school girl, a social outcast Suzie Marie Toller (Campbell). Then follows the first sex scene.

It’s somewhat notorious scene where Kelly and her friend wash Mr. Lombardo’s cars in tight jeans shorts and practice for Miss. Wet Shirt competition, wasting ten times more water than a normal car-washing requires. It’s hard not to recall of how this scene was parodied in “Zoolander”, where a bunch of pretty-mannequin boys wash car on a gas pump with a lot of water-sprinkling around, until one of them decides to get back at his pals using gasoline sprinkler.

It is very important to notice that this scene cuts the introductory part of the film. What follows is the story, and by schedule, we’ll have a chance to see the next sex scene only after the whole story is over. Seems like a long wait, but it will prove to be much shorter than expected, and we’ll see why.

Ok, now routine: Kelly returns home crying and informs her mother Sandra van Ryan (Russell) that she was raped by righteous Mr. Lombardo. Enter the stage pair of detectives: Ray Duquette (Bacon) and Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega). They investigate the case and find another underage victim of Mr. Lombardo: Suzie Marie. Enter the stage Kenneth Bowden (Murray), who brings a bit of (intended) fun into film, with his role of lawyer - more a con-man, and his cardboard office. He is the only one who accepts defending Mr. Lombardo against vengenceful rich woman. As it turns out, defense wasn’t so hard; Holes in Suzie Marie’s statement are obvious and Bowden manages to crush her accusations very quickly. Being that Suzie Marie’s case was the only proof for Kelly’s case, Lombardo is a free man now. And he’s granted a big sum of money from Van Ryan’s trust fond, as a compensation.

But wait! Remember when I was talking about plot twists and how every Hollywood thriller has to have them? Well, it turns out that it was all a plot by Lombardo, Kelly and Marie Suzie, to rob Kelly’s mother. Her motivation is rather lousy here, but 17 year old spoiled brats aren’t known for good judgment anyway. As it turns out, Lombardo really is sexing up minors, only not against their will. And that’s where second sex scene jumps in. Threesome. Anything to please the audience.

Third scene comes along shortly and it is rather short anyway – it features Kelly getting out of the pool while water slides along her curves... And that’s about all that this film had to say.

So what’s the problem then, you ask. What is so different here from any other lousy wanna-be thriller made in Hollywood? Well, the thing is, everything I told to far, fits in less than an hour. The story is so simple and straight-forward, lacking in details, that it takes no more than an hour to tell it. And that’s where makers of the film are in trouble, because every feature has to last at least closely to hour and a half. How to fill the remaining time? We’ll see in just a few moments!

I can’t really say how it happened that the film was too short; I don’t know whether it was scriptwriters or directors fault. If this problem occurred in scriptwriting, the best thing that writer could do was to return and rewrite the story, expanding it by adding more details. But then again, scripts have a rather standard size and if finished script was too short for a feature film, it would be obvious from it’s size; Studio would never accept such script. My guess is that the scriptwriter was aware of the shortness, but he was too lazy to fix it properly so he added a fake ending. My guess is also that director couldn’t care less but to fix scriptwriter’s mistakes, so he left it at that.

But let’s see more closely what happens after everything important happened. So, Lombardo, Kelly and Suzie Marie turned out to be in cahoots, and they had a wild threesome with Champaign-pouring. Now, all that is left is to wrap up the story, to make them either kill each other, ride into the sunset and live happily ever after, or get caught by good cop Ray. But as I said, authors have at least half an hour more to do.

So Lombardo kills Marie Suzie! It turns out that he and Kelly were in cahoots to use her and then get rid of her by, why not, adding a murder to an innocent con. Now they could stop there, they’d have 1:20 worth of film, and it’d still be just an average bad sex thriller. But now they got greedy for time so they went on with the same formula.

Because enter the good cop Ray, who murders Kelly and in a very naively unlikely set of circumstances, gets released for self-defense. Then it turns out that Ray and Sam Lombardo were in cahoots to first kill Marie Suzie (Marie Suzie, whatever), then to kill Kelly, and then to take all the money away for themselves. Are Sam and Ray gay lovers? It’s not explicitly said, but it’s known that the director threw out the scene where two guys shower together; His explanation was that it was a gratuitous scene so he didn’t want it in. Now I ask you, how can it get any more gratuitous than this? Well, film is in essence a few gratuitous sex scenes, with a bit of plot to connect them! Anyway, imagine poor Sam who had to go three-ways with Kelly and Marie Suzie just to talk them into the plan, while all this time he desired only men! Come to think of it, throwing out gay subplot was probably a good idea – at least one thing less that doesn’t make sense.

You know what happens then? Faking a boat accident, Sam kills Ray! Then Suzie Marie appears from dead and it turns out that she wasn’t actually dead! She was pretending all this time! It was their plan all along to fake Suzie Marie’s murder, so that they could make Ray kill Kelly, so that later Sam could kill Ray! What an ingenious masterplan!

And then – you know, I’m not even sure anymore, all this conning with plotholes awaiting to be discovered, but I think that Suzie Marie and Bowden (Sam’s lawyer if you forgot) con Sam for money. I think they’d go on but they were left out of characters. They should’ve introduced more in first part of the film, then they could go on with this for hours: A and B kill C; D appears and kills A with B; E appears and kills B with E. That way, who knows in whose hands money would end up.

Yep, that’s my favourite bad film. All this ridiculous plot-twisting simply buys me. Let’s all laugh at the expense of people who made it:

Ha ha ha!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Webcomic: Herodoll

I think that, no matter how cruel it is, I should start with the worst mistake that “Herodoll” the comic makes (will be easier later). Well, the mistake is this: it starts with a story interesting, intriguing, with a lots of original touches, well-told even – and then it turns to some other story, keeps talking about it and returns to the interesting one only sparingly.

To explain, I offer you these two stories:

  1. A sprite from a game that went nuts and made an army of sprite clones that helped him conquer the universe; Villain is a mix of insane and childlike, both of whom boost his egoism; He has a very scrappy looking doll that serves him at the same time as advisor, leveler of his insanity, and a punching bag.
  2. An average Joe who gets dragged into a RPG game and has to beat a main villain of the game in order to get out – thus he forms a party, including standard RPG characters that are for the most a little more than a cliché.

Well I for one choose option 1. I’ve seen a lot of comics built on premises from RPG games, forming a party, thief, magician, a stupid guy who is actually a leader and who has a funny hair, etc etc - starting from “RPG world” and “Adventurers” – and simply said, I don’t desire to read another comic based on the same idea. Of course, minus the part with an average guy being dragged into a game-like universe, but then again, that’s a part of “Pokemon” legacy (no matter how indirect the influence be) and I believe I’ve seen that idea rehashed often in webcomics too.

On the other hand, there’s a bad guy from the comic, Prime Evil as he called himself, is much more interesting. As I said, he combines madman and the child in himself, his egoism and the inconsistency of his behaviour are pictured quite well. But perhaps the most interesting character is the title one, Herodoll, originally intended by his shrink to be his release of aggression, but Prime Evil instead used it as a sort of imaginary friend. Herodoll’s design is great, it’s obviously been a victim of many beatings and one of it’s eye-buttons is handing on a loose piece of string; The poorer the doll looks like, the more sadistic Prime seems like. Then there’s an army of Prime’s henchman that he calls guard; Being clones, they all look the same and it’s, unexpectedly, a look of the straight, neck-tied man with glasses; Guards seem to form a society around Prime, and it’s interesting to see how (visually) the same person appears in different roles of Prime-centered society; It’s a bit confusing at the beginning, but in a good way. Actually, this all gives those first pages (before Ross, the hero enters the stage) a feel as if it’s all some crazed alternative reality inside Prime’s head, a product of his lunacy (helped by one of the facts that we first find out – that he’s mentally ill and even on therapy); The fact that Prime found a way to make his crazed vision a reality makes it all look scary. That he’d be surrounded by an army of men looking exactly the same, that one man would be reoccurring in many different roles, seems surreal and deranged, and that it is in fact a reality (at least in a computer game), seems, well, menacing.

To continue praising this part of “Herodoll” a bit more, I think that at least first two pages are brilliant: We have a psychiatric “guard” writing a report on Prime, the entire situation quickly glanced, and the report interrupted by Prime’s appearance, in which we see just what Prime is like and just what kind of reaction guards have to him. It’s followed by a series of short flashback while Prime flips through a family album, his relationship with Doll, with Guards, his greatest fear, his insanity, etc etc. All in all I think this introductory part is told very well.

I have to add related to that, my nod the name of the comic. Herodoll is by no means main or decisive character, it’s, in fact, an inanimate object. Naming the entire comic after it, gives Herodoll an unexpected significance that results in a kind of sinister aura of the doll; One way to perceive it is as a silent character that pulls the strings from the dark; Probably not the only way, though.

Now, things tend to go downhill with introduction of Ross, a guy from real life; Prime drags him into a game assuming that real life person would be a more challenging opponent. First thing that goes downhill is timing: a scene of meeting Ross and Prime for the first time is four pages, long, full of words that in the end don’t say anything; Full of confusion and lack of communication between characters that seem to be there just for the sake of low-key gag, which is why it lasts relatively long and achieves very little. Quite the opposite of that, the next scene in which Ross meets some game inhabitants and forms a party with them, seems kind of rushed. But the most important, this is where comic becomes an RPG game mock. Actually, in a way more that an RPG mock-up, though, but I’m going to tell about that later, first a digression:

I have to make this digression here, making digressions in the middle of review like I do seems a bit odd, but if the digression talks about something general regarding a certain kind of comics, then it is of interest to authors of that kind of comics, which includes author of the comic that I’m reviewing at the moment. Just to clear that up.

First RPG mock-up was, I think, “RPG world” and it set in stone some clichés that are to be used over and over again (some of the silliest ones too, like the one that main character has to have a stupid-looking haircut); But that’s not so hard, webcomic authors can be such fanboys that they’ll repeat their favourite comic by the numbers. Anyway, “RPG world”, being popular, spans a dozen of copies. It’s undebatable that webcomics are related to gaming a lot; Thus comics like RPG mocks, Fantasy based on table-games characters, and, of course, sprite comics. But all those people who try to directly transfer a computer game to comic, always forget to add in calculation the fact that games are (gasp!) different than comics. See, with RPG game, it mostly sums up to this: walk, run into enemy, fight, walk, run into enemy, fight, and so on till the end. This doesn’t work in a comic. Comic needs to have a structure, it needs to have rising action, culmination, it needs to have a lot that game doesn’t. What doesn’t work in a comic, works in a game because game has one important element that comic doesn’t: interaction. What is interesting a scene in a comic, in which two characters are chipping off 20 points or so, switching in hitting each other, all told without much actual interaction between two characters that would give it dynamism? Or when we see a comic character using an object from inventory to turn the battle into his favour? What is interesting there, when we don’t have any impact on the result of that fight? Now that’s the problem with such transpositions, in every moment where there’s a lack of interaction of a player (where, in a game, there’s be an interaction of a player), a comic has to offer something in return. Something, enough to make it up. Mocking interface and other elements of the game might work once or twice, though even that is debatable. In my opinion, even “RPG world” is pointless in moments where it strictly repeats a game. But in any case, in there, it was a novelty that worn out with the next use.

Now that told, there’s a bit of understanding why seeing that “Herodoll” is turning into one of those RPG mocks was a let down. But “Herodoll” does with it better than you’d expect. For one, it remains perfects understandable to a non-gamer too. See, when a sorceress does a “scan” function on an opponent and opponent cries “I feel violated”, that’s a joke that even non-gamer will understand; or when she blocks because she’s reading a tutorial; There’s a laugh hidden in the fact that they keep meeting the same guy who keeps giving them generic answers as well – if you took a game as a theme, use it’s possibilities for humor effect, nah? Elements of story aren’t obscure and they really don’t go very much into a gamer “mythology”. That’s good of course.

Then there’s an issue of characterization; I’ve told how, in their way, Prime and Herodoll, even cloned Guards, have a strong characterization. On contrary, to party characters, somewhat cliché characterization in forced on, because they’re RPG game characters: thief, warrior, magician, leader of the party... all of their characterizations are pre-written in a game, then in comics of the same kind that precede this one, and there seems to be not much place to move from there. Luckily, some clichés are still escaped: there’s no straight guy in the story; There’s no obligatory violent femme who yells at everybody all the time; Main character is not an idiot.

That that’s it, “Herodoll” lingers between lunatic Prime and RPG quests that are rather conventional so far. But then there’s one thing that makes me confident: see, authors brought a person from a real world to a game. What’s the worst they could do with this plot? They could keep him acting like a game character, getting through all troubles like a regular game sprite, until at the end we ask ourselves why is it so much important that the character is from the real world, couldn’t they just used any old game character? I have no doubt that average Hollywood movie would do that, but then again, that’s why so many bad movies get released every year.

Instead, “Herodoll” makes a lucky break toward the “Pleasantville” line and it’s real-life character started introducing something of the real-life understanding of the world into a game. He encourages his game friends to act out of character of a game sprite; I’ll remind you, “Pleasantville” is a lovely film about two teenagers who get into a world of a 40ies TV show. Where these teenagers introduce liberal moral, wider horizons and curiosity, Ross from “Herodoll” introduces free will that game sprites, of course, don’t have plenty. And then “Herodoll” makes another quote from “Pleasantville” in which every change is illustrated by a burst of colour into a black/white TV show. Although the relation between colour and change is not drawn very well in “Herodoll” (in “Pleasantville”, colour, later technology achievement stands representing everything that’s new against black and white, forced by earlier technology, that represents old views of life; In “Herodoll” I don’t see exactly why the game would be black/white and why the colour would represent free will), I still think that being influenced by other mediums (film) might enrich webcomics, while being influenced strictly by webcomics, leads to repetition and lack of inspiration. Thus this borrowing (intentional or unintentional) freshens the comic. In fact, it turns out that it’s one of those rare comics where colour is not just for achieving atmosphere or making art richer, it is in fact a mean of narration, an integral part of story; There’s even a very few films that do this, starting from “Wizard of Oz” and “Shock corridor” to said “Pleasantville” – I can recall of just a few.

Now, lineart is, seems so, intentionally schematic, perhaps even stiff (at least in earlier comics). To add to that, characters seem to be perpetually trapped in a chibi state, most of the time, with their rather large heads, small bodies and exaggerated emotions. This has an interesting effect that character designs have more similarity with actual game sprites than other RPG comics have. Art in hand-drawn RPG comics usually represent characters but not their visual appearance in games. By art, they are ordinary fantasy characters, only by behavior they are recognizable as game characters. In “Herodoll”, character designs bear bizarre similarity with sprites, specially Prime with his stiff haircut, and his emotionless Guards, but others with proportions and other features as well (this, however, doesn’t go for occasional pinup pages and some of the more detailed pages later in the comic). Short sequence that happens in real life is drawn somewhat more detailed.

Colour is, as I mentioned, very important element of the story. In first pages, lineart was aided with raster, patterns and hatching, and with lineart that was, as I said, stiff, patterns that look technically cold themselves, weren’t the right tough; Perhaps they were, where the representation of the cold game screen was an aim; But when it comes to a story and characterization, it wasn’t. Luckily, artist switches to grayscale very fast, and then a bit later to watercolors and watered ink.

It’s not really wattercolours and ink; It’s a brush in painting program that mimics those. But it’s genuine enough. In most of pages, artist sticks to a limited palette of blue or grey tones. Colour is, of course, saved for those moments of free-will-enlightening or for occasional red eyes of Prime. I personally like this wattercolour execution, I think it looks lovely, it has a touch of gentleness, and then also emotive warmth. I don’t say it often, but I think that scenes in which colour bursts into a black/white space possess a kind of, well, poetry. Hm, not poetry as a kind of writing, but as the quality that makes writing what it is, that power to extract an emotion from a reader; In my native language those are two different words, I guess I wouldn’t need half as much words to say it in it; With English, I’m still sometimes on ice. Well, yes, I rarely give comics an attribute of poetry, but that scene with black/white hand that reaches for the blue sky has it – perhaps even because we know that blue sky bears some significance, that it isn’t there just because it looks cool (o7-18).

(Said that, I don’t think that artist shouldn't use colour as a gimmick, like colouring money green and such stuff. It might wear out the effect of facing b/w and colour before its time).

There’s an issue of narrative language here: It’s heavy influenced by manga, perhaps much more than art itself. Now, with manga narration, it gets a set of instantly recognizable facial expressions, habit to structure the page in a dynamic manner, using variety of camera positions and, yes, there’s no talking heads, copy/pasting and similar stuff here. But there’s a reoccurring problem that I see when relative beginners – or even sometimes professionals – grip to this kind of narration, that that is that the narration isn’t clear enough, it tends to be confusing. It takes several looks to realise what’s going. There are certain lapses in narration, and I guess it’s best if I give examples because it can be a serious problem:

(07-21) One thing inherited directly from manga narration: As bodies transforms into chibi (for instance) and their hands transform into mittens, we can get confused about those body parts if, for instance, that mitten is shown in a position where it’s not obvious what it is and that it belongs to a body. In this particular case, in fifth panel, because of her mitten-hands, we are not aware that dog-girl is pointing at something – thus the next panel with totally different sight comes as awkward surprise. Awkward are the hands in panel 3 on (03 – 03). If the background was a little more detailed, they’d fit right in it and poor guy would look handless.

(07-25) It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in the background, even if I know what Chubbyco is. I am trying to grasp what the problem is and I think it’s this: the page is overcrowded with panels (some of “Herodoll” pages tend to be). But then, the action of flying and sticking into massive Chubbyco bodies requires a lot of space to be properly shown. But artist measured space by how much the action in front needs, and it needs a little because it’s the static dialogue. Thus the confusion at what they are doing there in the background.

(06-06) There’s a case of bad placement of panels. Well, in some order, panel 3 should be seen right after panel 2, but in this case panels 4 and 5 (framed), with their size, with the appearance that practically pushes panel 2 into the corner, well, those panels force reader to read them right after panel 2, after which he reads 3 and then 6. And there’s a confusion. It took me a second look to realize the right order – and I realized it out of content, not intuitively because of placement of panels, like it should be.

The thing is, as much as these dynamic, shape-shifting panel arrangements are nice-looking, for the sake of clear narration, double-meaning arrangements, those that leave reader confused to in which order he should read them – have to be avoided. Professionals recommend amateurs to stick to simple arrangements and to not experiment too much until they get a lot of practice. However, this is an advice for artists struggling to became pros. We webartists can safely experiment – we will get wrong pages sometimes, but we will probably learn faster through trial-and-error. If a pro makes such messes out of his pages, he might lose his job or audience, in any case, money. We webartists can only get a paragraph or two of critique in some review or something.

(08-18) Here we have a problem with switch of planes. It takes a while to identify that the thing in 5th plane is a mouth with the fork and some food on it (mostly because it’s where the tail of speech balloon points to). What’s the problem here? The art is too simplified to go into such small details. If you make such close shot, you have to make sure that either the object possesses enough details to be identified (thus, as I said earlier, chibi mitten hand would be hardly recognizable, unlike fully drawn hand) or that the shift from the full character image to the detail is not so sudden, perhaps through a series of panels with more and more close-up – so that then, we can recognize a mouth because we expect to see a mouth.

Those are some problems that I’ve seen elsewhere too. I think that with practice (and trial-and-error) you’ll get to use this, rather demanding narrative style, with less confusion.

Overall tone of “Herodoll” is sill. Actually, for the most part silly doesn’t stop and only in some of the last comics, tones of serious burst in. Though, from the beginning, comic is set as obviously not a string of gags; There’s a story hanging there and there’s a sence that serious parts are gonna come sooner or later. So when they come, they aren’t sudden or inappropriate.

Pacing is another thing I have to mention: It’s not overly slow as it knows to be; There’s a bit less then a year of archives, bi-weekly updates and after reading it, you have a feel that you got somewhere, that some things happened and that you aren’t still in introductory phase.

Now, I’ll try to draw some last conclusions about “Herodoll”. It starts with something original; It’s rather obvious how much I appreciate originality; I appreciate it in webcomics because there’s a little of it, because authors rather choose to copy their idols than to use the freedom they have and make something on their own. I can’t point fingers, my comic started as an indirect copy of my favourite comic as well; Later I regretted it but decided to make the best I can of it instead of cutting in the middle of the job. But never mind that; “Herodoll” combines some original parts with some that are almost cliché and results are what I called earlier in article, I believe, somewhat a letdown, awkward, a mistake... But eh, you know, before finally getting to “Herodoll” after I reviewed “Superfightfight”, I read three other comics quickly. You wanna know what were they about? They were all about a stupid guy who acts like an idiot and who hits on a girl who is waaaaay out of his league, and that girl yells at him for his idiocy, but then finally falls for him because beep down in his heart, he is a good person. All three!!! Sure, one was placed in space, one was in college, one was who knows where, but they were all about a stupid guy who acts like an idiot and who hits on a girl who is waaaaay out of his league, and that girl yells at him for his idiocy, but then finally falls for him because beep down in his heart, he is a good person! It may bring you to conclusion that webartists have no life experience so they have no choice but to use facts of life that they learned from other comics. In “Herodoll”, there’s no idiot hero, there’s no violent and bad-tempered female character, there’s no perfect character and no straight guy for reference. There’s a lack of a lot of things that I’m already fed up with, reading webcomics.

I said that I see perspective in “Herodoll”. I’ll take liberty to consider what “Herodoll” has to accomplish to stand up to those expectations (who’m I kidding, I always do that): First of all, I expect it to stick to the “Pleasantville” line that, probably, leads to some sort of liberation of game sprites. However, I have to note that we haven’t actually seen much of a display of how much they aren’t free. I mean, we’ve seen in a couple of occasions that they hesitate to do something, but I haven’t seen some strong reluctance or even something that holds them strongly without their own will. Nothing big that would justify seeing colours in a black/white world. So I guess we’d need a bit more profiling of what life is like to sprites before they meet Ross, outside force.

Then there’s a matter of characterization: I said that characterization is forced by standards of RPG. If characters are going for free will, their characters must leap out of those stereotypes too; They must became real characters, likes of something that we’d find in real life. Thief’s game-given character tells her that she’s sinister, that she has to steal, to plot, etc, etc. But is there more to it than those simple characteristics (that are all derived from the fact that she is a thief)? Or is she maybe completely the opposite than what rules of the game demand? And, you know, similar questions. In any case, I think that splitting the party was a good idea, it gives more opportunity to characterize each of them individually.

And then there’s a matter of Herodoll and that awkward world that is created around him. We’ve seen some more bits of it in some of latest comics, but damn, I feel like seeing more.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Film: Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

Well, previous blog has reminded me of "lost skeleton of cadavra" which reminded me that I’ve seen this cute film only once. So I took it and watched it again.

There has been a renaissance of old 40ies and 50ies SF/horror. Time gap has made us perceive these naive campy films with affection. Sure, one of catalysts of the renaissance was Tim Burton’s "Ed Wood", biopic of officially the worst director of all times, but also acknowledging of influence of this period of cinematography by him and other top directors of today. public remembered that a lot of big names of Hollywood today (including Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme and, of course, Jack Nicholson) started as parts of the crew in Roger Corman's studio for rapid production of cheap flicks.

Parts of the renaissance are rather affectionate parodies. I got "Lost skeleton of cadavra" and "Killer clowns from outer space" at one expense.

"Killer clowns" was mostly a disappointment; even though advertised as a parody, this is more of a plain throwback, homage. The novelty in a story about aliens terrorizing the city is that these aliens are clowns. There's no real laugh, and I doubt authors actually intended to make us laugh. Then again, there's no scare either, as, even though clown masks are bizarre and gruesome, storytelling is too familiar to surprise us. Film has an aura of 80ies camp rather than 50'ies camp, and it's closer in sensibility to deliberate kitsch films like "Toxic avenger" than to old horrors. There's one film I don's see a point of being made, as it does nothing, except for saying that the author likes old horrors.

"Lost skeleton" is, however, very different: it is amazing to which extent the director, Larry Blamire, managed to recreate the era: not only stupid plot and dialogues full of inane, repetitive, foreshadowing chatter, but also flat performances by actors and clumsy storytelling; like introducing a ranger who says "I hope someone needs ranger's help" just in case someone didn't notice his uniform; and, of course, shabby masks and special effects.

Film language is recreated perfect too: here, you'll see those clumsy moves like cutting in the middle of action, actors entering from the side of a static shot; use of camera from hand to emphasize action in desperately static scene; overall inability to hide the fakeness of the set; obligatory number of film goofs; even shots of forest animals that were made to look like reused stock footage.

The level to which the director brought up everything bad from those films works like a parody alone (unlike in "killer clowns" where the intention was recreated, but not the execution), but it's the script that steals the show: it's forcefully informative: main character keeps repeating that he's a scientist as if we're going to forget; the alien named Kro-Bar never says "our planet" without adding it's name: "Marva"; it's redundant and long-winded; it's crutched by those sayings from old films like "I wonder" and "oh, well", repeated to the level of irritation; it's full of puns that might've passed as unintentional if we didn't know the real nature of the film; the amount of nonsense that characters say is high. Yet, it's all low key so much that you can even miss them.

It's actually surprising that this works as an affectionate parody: being low key and restrained, film never slips into a farce even though the director seemed often tempted to do it; this might mean less laughs for some, but I can't help but admire to author, who avoided running jokes to the extreme where they would, granted, probably be hilarious, but would completely ruin the tone of the movie. I can't help thinking, if the film was directed by Mel Brooks, you could expect a monster to jump and do a dance number, which was the usual save of Brooks' for when he didn't have better idea; it kind of pinpoints how Brooks' parody can be shallow and how Blamire's is subtle.

But then, even though Blamire is screenwriter, director and (nominally) main hero, this is not a one-man-film, as he is aided by a bunch of actors, who manage to be lovely in a way they switch from reading lines flat-out to instant overacting; in a way they manage to act bad and to say those silly lines with a dead-serious face, all performances are wonderful, including those one-minute-long.

Now the story goes like this: a scientist Paul Armstrong (Blamire) arrives to a cabin with his wife betty (Fay Masterson) to investigate a fallen meteor in search of the most powerful radioactive material, atmospherium; as I mentioned, "scientist" is the word he says most often, and he even swears with "scientist's honor". Curiously, he never even specifies what kind of scientist he is; frankly, every scientist would rather specify his area of research, but dr. Armstrong sticks to general "scientist" as if he's not even sure himself.

Then there's Brian Howe as dr. Roger Fleming, obviously a cynical kind of scientist unlike enthusiastic dr. Fleming; his famous quote, an answer to whether he believes in old legends: "I’m a scientist. I don't believe in anything"; he intends to conquer the world by resurrecting the title skeleton, lying forgotten in some cave around there: a plan that can measure up with "Plan 9 from outer space" in stupidity. For resurrecting the (useless) skeleton, he needs atmospherium, what a coincidence...

Then there's a third party looking for atmospherium: alien Kro-Bar (Andrew Parks) and his wife Lattis (Susan mcConel) whose space ship has crashed nearby: atmospherium can power it back; to make more mess, an obligatory mutant monster is there, escaped from a cage in alien's ship.

Now, Armstrong has found atmospherium and intends to examine it, thus saying to his wife: "If you keep distracting me, I’ll never change the course of mankind." but atmospherium brings other parties to their cabin, Kro-Bar and Lattis, and then Fleming and a women he made out of four different forest animals, using alien transformator; she is called Animala, played by Jennifer Blair, and she fits to this cat-like role so well that the assumption that the role must've been written for her is in place. The unlikely lot tries to act like casual, ordinary passers by.

Now, even though confused, earthlings show themselves strangely tolerant to alien's strange behaviour, even when lattice drinks a bit too much and Kro-Bar says "my wife sometimes forgets she is not a space alien".

But then a ranger appears too, to inform them of activities that we know are doing of a mutant: “A farmer was horribly mutilated so I thought I’d go and tell other folks like yourself about it so that maybe, just maybe, you wouldn't be horribly mutilated too". Clever dr. Armstrong is for one moment very close to solving the mystery: "mutilate? Mutant? Hm, I wonder. Oh, well..."

Plot gets conveniently confusing from time to time as everyone including the skeleton tries to get to atmospherium placed in scientist’s room, all in a very unarticulated manner. In constipation, Fleming informes aliens that he knows of their real nature, to which Kro-Bar gives himself away: "Aliens? Us? Is this one of your earth jokes?"

Fleming talks them into cooperating with him; what follows is hilariously longwinded and pointless talk about sharing, along the lines of: "if you help us and we help you, we will be helping each other."

Next morning, just as Armstrong goes to work on examining atmospherium, saying: "Let's see what happens if I add water to it... Good old-fashioned H2O, I call it", Animala snatches the stone from him. But then, Fleming double-crosses aliens and take the stone away by himself; putting it into skeleton, he resurrects it.

Armstrong is Confused when aliens try to explain the situation: "Wow, wow, I’m a scientist and this is still too fast for me!" no wonder, explanation has sentences like: "She's really Animala, part women - part four different forest animals".

They are joined by Betty, who, meanwhile, had close encounter with the mutant and saw goodness in it's eyes, which is where film goes Frankenstein routine as she realizes that "it probably never meant to horribly mutilate anybody".

Then Armstrongs and aliens have a nice chatter and become best friends: "on Marva there's no cleaning up because there's never a mess. We gave up messes eons ago." later, they encounter the mutant again, after which Armstrong concludes: "I guess I should stick to science and leave battling alien mutants to experts".

Now, skeleton is alive which gives opportunity to some of the worst doll-on-a-string special effects ever seen. Skeleton and it's two minions capture aliens and skeleton decides to start it's conquest of the earth by marrying alien's wife (even if there are more attractive women all around him).

Looking from bushes, Armstrongs have to help their alien friends. After dr. Armstrong brings up a dangerous plan, Betty replies with: "If I wanted a boring life, I guess I wouldn't have married a man who studies rocks."

The plan includes luring a mutant, and at the end there is an obligatory showdown of two resident monsters with special effects that 50ies audience wouldn't fall for; Fleming is choked by his own master and Animala is turned back to four different forest animals. All's well, happy ending.

Which wraps this lovely little flick that never sinks into anything less than funny, subtle and surprisingly accurate.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Film: Loaded weapon

Here’s an interesting question: what separates parody from an ordinary comedy? You can try to simplify it and say that parody has to parody something, some conventional genre or even a particular film. But there's more than that, what's the difference between parody parodying a genre and a comedy belonging to that genre? They both use conventions of the genre, they both put a comic twist on them, in theory there's no difference. I remember an argument with a friend, about one of those "new teacher coming to a problematic school and eventually rehabilitating students and teaching them real values" films, it's name escapes me now; a rather re-hashed subject, from "to sir with love" onwards, I’ve seen the plot used in dramas, comedies, often in action films too - kind of surprising; so anyway: my friend claimed that the film was a parody; I claimed that is was not, as it lacked goofiness and straight face a parody needs.

I remembered this recently during writing one of the earlier blog entries, as it stroke me that what separates parody from ordinary comedy (I’ll refer to it as just "comedy") is not the subject: it's the nature of the world the story is happening in - the nature of film's.

In comedy, this universe is in mostly everything like ours. There are unusual elements in it that bring comedy, like quirky characters or circumstances filled with improbable coincidences, or whatever authors came up with. The thing is that film's universe, it's parts that aren't unusual, are aware of the nature of the unusual elements; they are aware that these elements are weird, cooky, funny, even though, being part of the universe and not it's observers (like us) they react to them different; thus very little comedy characters will laugh together with the audience.

Now, in parody, the entire world (film's universe, as I earlier referred to it) is unusual; thus things that are, when observed from our universe, unusual, aren't unusual to members of the film's universe; because, their point of view is unusual in the same way. That's where straight-faced tone of parodies is coming from: from their point of view, nothing funny is going on. in Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker collaboration "airplane", in fact, tragedy is taking place. From their point of view, that is.

On the other hand, in George Roy Hill's "Funny Farm", Chevy Chase and Madolyn Smith-Osbourne are surrounded by unusual that plagues their desired idyllic life, but they are well aware of the weirdness and as their viewpoint is set as primary, this film is a comedy even though everything in it but two main characters is unusual.

There are a few directors specialized in parodies. For one, there is Mel Brooks, whose palette spreads to western ("Blazing saddles"), horror ("Young Frankenstein"), pre-sound era film ("Silent movie"), SF ("Spaceballs"), hitchcockian thriller ("High anxiety") so much that his act has became parody of various film genres; even though his first feature, "Producers", wasn't a parody, it contained a parody in secondary frame: outrageous theatre play "springtime for Hitler". Brooks’s output has turned out to be extremely uneven, from god-awful films that don't deserve a decent laugh, to parodies that just hit the spot. There is a definite disagreement on which films are which, though probably everyone agrees that "History of the world" is, at the best, nothing special. His trademark actors include hysteric Gene Wilder, eccentric Dom Delouise, cross-eyed Marty Feldman and Madelyn Kahn, a living spoof of Ingrid Berghman.

Then again, he's not the only parody director. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker brought parodies that al least as extremely uneven as Brooks’s are, though probably more; "Airplane", “Top secret” in collaboration; later Zucker went on with the series “Naked gun” while Abrahams made "Hot shots"; they seem to have specialized to parodying particular films more than entire genres. Jerry Zucker later executed a few mellow, star-vehicle romances, like “Ghost” and “First knight” – nothing worth remembering.

Other parody directors seemed to have disappear faster than they appear, some of them being brothers Wayans, the brain (if any) behind the series "Scary movie" that just isn't worth the tape it's shot with, Joel Gallen’s "Not another teen movie" that managed impossible - to be even worse than "Scary movie", then Steve Oedekerk, one-man-filmcrew, with "Kung pow: Enter the fist"; Bob Kohher’s "Plump fiction"; omnibus by various directors named "Bogus witch project", and so on and on... Most of these I can't recommend for the reason of not having watched them, but I don’t think it’s a good sign that most of these directors are for-hire directors of commercials and music videos. Though, I can recommend Larry Blamire’s unusually subtle, affectionate 50ies horror spoof "Lost skeleton of cadavra"... Which is a topic for some other occasion.

But what's the reason most of these parodies shamefully backfire, even those of brooks and Abrahams/Zucker fame? I tend to repeat Martin Ebert’s saying that "there's a difference between parodying something and repeating it with a funny hat" and parody makers seem to have never quite worked out that difference. That means, in order to make a parody of something, you have to realize what is it that makes it prone to parodying: you have to find it's flaws and exaggerate them to the point of obvious and absurd; otherwise, your film is repeating these flaws not being aware of them, while concentrating on gags that basically aren't parodying anything from the actual film. Making a parody is analytic process which makes it probably tougher kind of comedy than, for instance, situational or character comedy. Parody makers, however, seem to think that making parodies is easy (which is why so many of them are made by debutants) - no dramatization needed, no characterization needed, if there are any holes and flaws, audience might think that they were intentional; the result is many bad parodies that pretty much sunk the whole genre recently.

The whole "repeat with the funny hat" routine can be seen best on example of "Spy hard", Rick Friedberg’s (another advertisements director), Leslie Nielsen-produced spoof of James Bond. There was never a more laughless comedy made: Nielsen repeats everything James Bond does; he drinks the special drink like James Bond; he drives a special car like Bond; young, pretty women fall for him like for Bond; we are supposed to laugh at the fact that Leslie Nielsen is an old man, while James Bond is supposed to be young, and so on through the whole film. Well, har har.

Then again, I’d like to put “Loaded weapon”, directed by Gene Quintano and produced by “National Lampoon” as an example of a good parody. “Loaded weapon” is a merciless parody of, first of all “Lethal weapon”, but also of “Basic instinct”, “Die hard” and many other police films and variety of police clichés. Taglines themselves are enough to make me laugh: “Oh my god! They have guns!”; “See it before they make sequel!”; “We’d like to have been nominated for 9 ACADEMY AWARDS!”.

“Loaded weapon” features Emilio Estevez as Jack Colt, screwed-up psychotic cop and Samuel Jackson as Wes Luger, his go-by-the-rules partner. Estevez has always had the appeal of teenage version of Michael Douglas or Mel Gibson whose skinniness and paleness served as a sort of opposition to masculinity of aforementioned; also, building his career on roles of outcast teenagers, Estevez brings this persona to the film: both are here used as parody elements. At that point, Jackson had built a fair reputation of supporting actor, perhaps even much more than of lead roles; And as partner of the main character in police films is for some reason very often black, Jackson suits just fine.

“Loaded weapon”, as many parodies, works by crowding the frame with gags, sometimes even too fast to glance in the time we’re given, so they require a second look. Films usually do this not for the subtlety of jokes, but for the hope that, if some jokes don’t work, others will. However, with films, jokes either work or not, regardless of how many of them there are.

I am of opinion that throwaway jokes in “Loaded weapon” usually work, at least at first watching; I can’t help but chuckle when a bottle of juice is shot through and leaks juice, and Colt puts a cup to fill it with juice; The irrationality of that action during the shootout crashes to a somewhat tempting desire to use the juice-leaking to refresh. Many other similar jokes work fine, like the one where the photo robot is made of a clay, and later, a person with a clay head is arrested: this joke wouldn’t have worked if the arrest scene wasn’t shown in the background of some action regarding the main story in first plane, where it could even skip unnoticed. Again, in a scene in marine, a Popeye is sighted; When Colt is creeping through canalization, he stumbles to Ninja Turtles; Figures.

But that’s just to add the flavour of farce. “Loaded weapon” is there for gags that directly mock cop films; As to illustrate what I earlier said about difference between parody and repeating with a funny hat on, there’s a scene where Colt tries to dismantle a bomb on a ship, until he finally throws it into the water, where it safely explodes; And then, a bunch of dead scuba-divers float to the surface. The gag obviously lingers on the premise usual in police films, that throwing the bomb into the water (or alternatively into the air) is perfectly safe, the next best thing to dismantling it. This is the kind of logic usual in cop films, a lack of regard to anyone but main characters: it is hard to assume that there is no one where the bomb is thrown; It’s easier to assume that there is no one that director cares about there. Thus, the thought “What if there’s a diver in the water?” is only logical.

Similar gag is the one where a camping car is trashed by a machine gun from a chopper. Only then, no other than Bruce Willis appears out of the car to explain that they have the wrong address and that they were looking for the car two numbers down the road. Another gag that is based on making a reality out of one obvious possibility that, curiously, never comes up in “serious” films. In another scene, Colt and Luger simultaneously have flashbacks at their child traumas that made them the way they are (one gun-nut, the other straight man); It is quite grating how many films use traumas from childhood as an instant characterization device, and I can’t help but to ask myself: “is it possible that there are so many people with traumas around?” ‘Cause I never noticed. But these films, even if expensive production, are often cheap in many other ways; young Luger, saying “The old lady died because I didn’t go by the rules. From now on I will always go by the rules” in an emotionless, robot like voice, the whole scene looking like taken from a video for learning a foreign language – nails it right at the spot.

Then I have to recall of two (obligatory) German guards who just shrug at sounds of Colt clumsily sneaking by: “Did you hear something?”; “No! Only a cracked cop would try to bust into this place!” Or perhaps the moment from the very beginning, when Colt answers to “Nice day” with “Nice day? You think we’re having a nice day...?” and a long-winded monologue about his shattered soul; Or the evil chief of police who yells for no reason and cancels the case for even less reason; There’s been a merciless mockery of cop clichés all over.

Of course, it doesn’t always work so great. Parody of a leg-crossing scene from “Basic instinct” is for instance, bland and funny-hat-like. Authors just can’t stop anything to hang on in this scene, and they simply can’t come up with a good gag. Cathy Ireland as Miss Destiny Demeanor acts a “fatal woman” just as good as Sharon Stone does; which means, she does it bad. But then again, she isn’t the main problem of this scene. There are other gags that don’t work quite well, but they don’t spoil the overall impression to me.

Now, “Loaded weapon” inevitably reminds me of one problem of good parodies – which means of parody as a genre: you need a pre-knowledge about the thing that is parodied. For getting “Lost skeleton of cadavra”, you need to have watched a plenty of old SF-horrors; “Airplane” is totally unfunny if you haven’t seen older disaster movies like “Airport ‘77”. “Spaceballs” gets away thanks to the fact that just about everybody knows outlines of “Star wars”, even if they haven’t seen the films. Such is the case with “Loaded weapon”; I remember seeing it with various people who haven’t laughed once during the film, even though I was ripping my lungs out; perhaps film wasn’t tackling their sense of humor, but I’m inclined to believe that they simply weren’t acquaintance with the things film was parodying.

But that’s inevitable, I guess, you need some kind of pre-knowledge for just about anything. If nothing, you need to know the language the film (or titles) is in. It’s just that pre-knowledge for parodies is a bit more specific.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Book: Segundo viaje (Second journey)

“Segundo viaje” isn’t exactly an official collection of Julio Cortazar’s stories, but it’s a book as it reached to me through a Serbian publisher, “Rec I misao”. This book contains selected short stories published in various books of his from 1951 to 1983. Selection included stories with elements of fantasy, but with ground deep in reality. The book was my first serious encounter with Cortazar, before that, I’d stumble to his stories in various anthologies. Later encounters include a wonderfunny silly but symbolic collection “Historias de cronopious y de famas” (“Stories of chronopias and fames”) of extra short stories, some of them featuring three kinds of imaginary creatures, some being new, postmodern encyclopedia entries or short tutorials of performing some everyday actions (the book was published here under the name: “A Handbook for singing and crying”), or collection of his stories with political mothives, lead by “Apocalypse in Solentiname”.

But the first encounter was decisive enough, as “Second journey” is a selection of the most finely written stories, where fantasy is often so subtly underlined in realistic setting that we don’t notice it until we’ve read the entire story, or even long ago after we’ve read the story, and the menacing presence, whether it is an unnamed creature, a real-life tiger or just character’s fate, brings the fine sense of horror.

Cook is opened by “Casa tomada”, (“Overtaken house"), an eerie story in which narrator and his sister are forced to leave their house room by room, as unnamed entities take them over. Every time, narrator and his sister are escaping their grip in the last moment, leaving all personal things behind them and barricading the door just before the entities are about to burst into the next room. Nature of attackers isn’t revealed all through the story, and all that is left is a kind of cold, heavy atmosphere, sense of danger but also sense of inevitable. The story has dream-like quality, as facts are never revealed, and neither is a nature of relationship between narrator and his sister; Feel you have when reading the story is something you might have felt in your dreams, terror and fear is a kind that might’ve just come from the nightmare, and you can’t quite put finger to what is it that you’re afraid of. But in fact, the story was inspired by a dream, and written in one breath after waking up, so it directly captured the dream. However, Cortazar often wrote stories quickly, without much planning or pre-drafting, without rewriting sentences, leaving things often as they came out of the typewriter, even if they might’ve been said easier and quicker. Aside from boosts of inspiration like this one, seems like he liked to boil ideas in his head rather than on paper. Dream or no, the “House” sets the right tone for the rest of the book.

But even if it wasn’t one of the best premises of Cortazar, the following story is; “Carta a una senorita en Paris” (“A Letter to one lady in paris”) is a story narrated by a young man invited to move into the Paris apartment of Andre, a lady from the title while she is away from town. As he tells us the story, he is carefully moving in, terrified with the idea that he’d ruin the personal order of things as Andre arranged them. Now, this guy is a nice guy, normal, just like any other guy. He only has one flaw: from time to time, he throws up a rabbit, a live little white rabbit, even cheerful rabbit considering that he has just been thrown up.

The problems begin when he moves in the apartment, when he starts to uncontrollably throw up rabbits, much more often than he usually does. This leads to ruination of the apartment and the ending that I won’t give out. It’s a story of how harmless little quirks, our little secrets, can ruin us.

“Bestiario” (“Beast house”) is a story that contains most of elements of Cortazar’s writing: tense, almost terrifying atmosphere: an incoming catastrophe that floats in the air, until it materializes in a culmination that is perhaps predictable, but only because it’s made inevitable; a premise that is weird, irrational, and yet put in a realistic, straight-faced surrounding. In a large house, a family lives together with a tiger. Servants carefully observe daily migrations of the tiger from room to room, and inform the family, so that they avoid the room in which the beast is at the moment. This tension between tiger and humans is translated to a tension between family members. The rest is in the shadow this idea.

A story called “No se culpe a nadie” (“Don’t blame anyone”), the shortest and possibly the wildest one, is about a man trying to put a sweater on, where sweater becames an instrument of execution, and his own hand turns against him and attacks him. It’s hard to explain but, again, it’s an entire battle happening under a sweater.

Then there’s “La puerta condenada” (“Baricaded Door”) story that I read once before sleep, and it scared me so much that it kept me awake the whole night; More than any horror film I’ve seen. Perhaps it wasn’t all that scary, perhaps I was just in the mood to be scaret; But then again, perhaps Cortazar could’ve taught horror writers a few things: for one, that there’s nothing more terrifying than unexplained. A man moves in a hotel room. He expects to find some peace and quiet so that he could work, but every night he’s interrupted by a baby’s cry from the next room. Rooms are separated by a door and he can hear the cry clearly even though door is hidden behind a big wardrobe, and then he hears fermale voice hushing the baby too. Next morning, he reports it to the porter. Porter says that the woman has been living in that room for years now. Hotel stuff talks with the woman, but the next night, he hears baby cry again…

Uh, uh, uh, I am very tempted to tell the end of the story but this time I’ll resist. This text seems to be toned as an advertisement for Cortazar, so I’ll keep up with that. Scare catches me at the last page, even though the whole dead-of-the-night atmosphere was keeping me at the edge of the bed.

“Las Menades” is a story about a classic concert, so good that the audience, in their admiration, fascination and blind love with the dignified orchestra – lynches the players. It’s a love so hard that it kills.

“En nombre de Boby” (“In Bobby’s name”) tells about a boy who lives with his mother and aunt. He dreams that mother is torturing him from night to night, and the whole situation is seen through aunt’s eyes. She manages to keep things in reality seemingly fine, but at night, in dreams, terrible things are happening – until… Well, until the ending.

“Queremos tanto a Glenda” (“We all like Glenda”) is a story to which we can relate. Glenda, famous actor is retired for a long time, good for a club of passionate (and very analytic) fans; When she decides to return to filmmaking, they are afraid that the perfect image that she build with her career so far would inevitable be ruined (because it’s so close to perfection that it’s impossible to match) so they decide to do the only logical thing. “Botella al mar” (“Bottle in the sea”) is a throwback to this story, in which Cortazar refers to similarities in his previous story with the biography of Glenda Jackson, and names a dosen more coincidences that relate him and Glenda. The list of real-life coincidences form a string that lets us believe that there is more than that going on; And yet, Cortazar’s story is still fiction, in that it’s mystifying is acted out by a postmodern writer who is amused at the things that fit each other so fine. Similar thought process was engaged in Thom Moorhouse’s story “White knight”, where a set of real coincidences mixes up with made-up coincidences till the total confusion.

“Texto el una libreta” (“Text in a notebook”) is another story, scary even though there’s less conventional horror in it than in any other; it’s probably the irrational reason and the hidden presence that stroke me as scary. Namely, a researcher notes how every day, number of people entering Buenos Aires subway is a few numbers larger than a number of people coming out. What could be interpreted as a slight inaccuracy of counting automates, triggers further investigation until he finds out about a whole underworld society that lives in metros and hallways, inexplicably getting larger by people joining every day.

“Segundo viaje” (“Second journey”) is another exemplary story: there’s such small hint of fantasy in it, so that we can interpret it as a set of coincidences, or a terrible premonition. A young boxer strings victories one after another, until he realizes that he’s retracing steps of the older boxer, the idol from his home town. It leaves him wondering whether he is to retrace steps to the full, together with the loss and tragedy in the end, or that he’s there to finish what his precedent left unfinished.

There’s a bunch of other stories whose fantasy you can never quite catch; These stories you can believe in, they can happen, but then again, that’s probably the scariest thing of all. There’s a certain lack of story “Kirke” in which a young lovebird never realizes why previous fiancées of his girl have committed suicides, until the last page; But then again, I have that story somewhere on bookshelf too.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Film: Twelve monkeys

Terry Gilliam is one of directors whose artistic goal is mainly bringing us imaginative, stylish visuals; his main tool is imagination; that's why he's often put in the same group with Tim Burton, Coen brothers, even Joe Dante. Not unrelated, these directors have often been accused that their films are all style and no substance - they often get too overwhelmed with their imagination which is, after all the main reason they make films. Though, this is perhaps said less often for Gilliam than others.

Gilliam is, on the other hand, accused that he puts too many ideas in his films, too many even for a mind to grasp, which makes them sometimes too crowded. This is particularly evident in "Adventures of baron Munchausen’s" which has, I believe, been voted for the worst film of that year on some occasions. But this is actually where Gilliam’s magic lies: he's simply crazy. He is somewhat similar in sensibility with Burton, in that they both started as animators and thus their images contain quality of stylization found in animation (and they both have beautiful comic-strip storyboards) and also in that they both look in their fairy-tales spiced childhood for inspiration, but there's a great difference: while Burton remained a child inside, and is making films for grown-up children, Gilliam grew up and went insane. Now he's making films for people who are in touch with their irrational side, or is trying to help them make that connection.

And that's the point with exaggerated, loud, even grating imagery of "Baron Munchausen’s"; that's the point with all the little details in "Brazil", and then, that's the point with hallucination epic of "Fear and loathing in Las Vegas"; Gilliam seems to be walking on the cliff, and all the time, he continues making steps toward the abyss, but somehow, when we think he's bound to fall, we realize that he's still on the edge. the explanation might be in imagery of "Indiana Jones 3" where a bridge appears under your feet as long as you believe, but somehow I think that the road runner explanation is more accurate: he can't fall because he doesn't know of the law of gravitation.

Gilliam is, as many know, one of 6 Monty Python guys, the one who did animations and appeared only in short roles, appearances, rather. Though, it wasn't because of the lack of acting skills - if nothing, he swallowed an entire banana in one bite, live on stage during the famous Hollywood Bowl performance. Boy, was he sweaty when he did that.

Later, Gilliam made a reputable directing career, probably the most successful and continuous of all post-Monty-Python careers, with probable the least calling up on old glory. Yet he did remain faithful to Python's absurd; take, for instance, De Niro in "Brazil" - an outlaw repairs man who gave up on legal repairing because of all the paperology - something that could've been a concept for Monty Python sketch. Gilliam occasionally took pythons for supporting roles in his movies, so Michael Palin starred in "Brazil", "Time bandits" and even a leading role in Gilliam’s first feature, "Jabberwocky"; Clease appeared in "Time bandits”' and Idle had a double role in "Baron Munchausen’s": ever so refreshing old faces.

Gilliam is, again, one of those directors that producers dread of. Old style directors who not only break the schedule and are always late, but also break the budget and ask for more money; then they won't even let you re-edit it, and, in the end, there’s no guarantee that film won’t be a commercial flop (and Gilliam had his deal of flop films that gained cult status only years later). Old style producer's nightmare, that’s Gilliam’s reputation. Interesting documentary "Lost in La Mancha" describes unbelievable set of bad circumstances that lead to never finishing his "Don Quixote", including unexpected storms over the Spanish desert that Gilliam pchoose for the set because of the particular colour of the stone and dirt, or the illness of the actor who was the only one Gilliam saw as don Quixote. Although some of this was eccentricity, Gilliam is one director in Hollywood who doesn't do things half-way.

Needless to say after my intro, I love all these films, except for “Jabberwocky” which was too much alike Monty Python's medieval sketches, but it didn't quite click with him as a main author. The rest is one of my favourite directing careers, imaginative, various, always surprising. That's why I had a problem deciding whether to rant and rumble about "Brazil", "Twelve monkeys" or "Munchausen". The final choice was the middle one so in the rest of the text I will try to convince you that "Twelve monkeys" is the best Bruce-Willis-saves-the-world film of all.

Because for one, he doesn't save the world; at the ending, he is shot as he is about to stop the virus spreader, while information he provided to his center may or may not serve any purpose. At the same time, he as a boy is there, seeing his own death.

In fact, Willis, playing James Cole, is in this film far from the action hero we're used to; he stumbles around dazed, sleeps on streets or spends time tranquilized in a nuthouse; he isn't sure of what he wants or what he has to do; he is almost instinctively searching for information he is sent for, but he'd rather spend time listening to old jazz hits like "what a wonderful world" or "blueberry hills". At one moment, he actually believes that he's mad and that everything's just a figment of his imagination. In short, he is lost and confused. But that's Willis, and, because of his typecasting, we expect an action hero; we expect a certain kind of film; that's why this film is a big twist on a rehashed topic and why an ending like this comes unexpected.

The key thing is, he saw his own death as a child, thanks to time travel he is caught up in a loop and not being unable to escape from preordained is the main theme of this film. Starting with the fact that superiors send him to past not to try to change it but merely to watch and collect information; through presence of voices coming from walls and trackers installed in teeth; to the final scene where he just can't escape, and being shot by airport guards seems inevitable - until we realize that he as a kid is watching the entire scene and being set for the defeat. Now tell me: how is he supposed to believe that he is going to escape or even stop the apocalypse - if he saw with his own eyes that he won't. Two Coles, each knowing other's future, are in a curious, paradoxes relation.

There's a tight net of motivations in this film, tightly related to time travel: Cole is inclined to convince himself that he's mad, because than the incoming apocalypse is a figment of his madness too: no SF character has ever been so insecure. Escape is his final and only motive, punctuated by the utopian soundtrack.

Said that, "Twelve monkeys" is more respectful toward time travel paradoxes than most of time-travel films, even though it's still not without it's own problems.

This film was the first to bring Brad Pitt (at that point, a boyish-looking star that teenagers swooned over) to a serious role. He exercised a frantic acting style that became a prototype for his later roles (especially in "fight club"). He’s definitely one excellent madman as James Goines, even if a bit too baroque.

When we talk about baroque, that's a word with which you can describe Gilliam’s style, dedication to details and fondness of crowding them, but also the use of wide-angle cameras and unusual camera angles that force a specific, disorienting but insider (perhaps because characters being disoriented, we identify our disorientation with theirs) point of view on audience. This camerawork is present in this film too, but there is also a visible restrain, this film is more conventional than any other of Gilliam’s. Yet, it's still highly stylish: take the example of an ordinary dialogue scene that is made visually exciting, just by placing it on a circular staircase and applying Gilliam’s camerawork. One of the first scenes has Cole crawling in the middle of a snow desert, and, of course, there is a beautiful scene near the end with wild animals running around town and a herd of giraffes strolling across the bridge. This hopeful sight matches the only moment where main characters are full of hope. but then, film ends with no hope.

My opinion is that "Brazil" is the only Gilliam’s film that isn't misunderstood even nowadays. "Twelve monkeys" is still treated as classic SF with Bruce Willis, a step back to more commercial work (even if, for the reesong I mentioned earlier, there's very little commercial in it). "Baron Munchausen" is considered a trash classic even though it's far from that; and don't even get me started on "Fear and loathing in Las Vegas"; Gilliam has built a cult status but it's a narrow audience that he operates with. I guess that's the price of having an extreme vision. Even if extremely good.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Webcomic: Superfightfight

I promised a review to superfightfight birdie too. Sff was a short read even though over a year of three-weekly updates; the reason is, i was able to slide over a comic without stopping to think about it; dialogues are usually short, repetitive, and a comic can be grasped in a second.

One interesting kind of webcomics is the one where creator makes a small universum with limited population and a set of rules. Intentionally, author limits himself, sometimes to challenge himself, sometimes to simplify premise, either to get more control over the comic's universe, to simpfy one side so he could underline other, or simply because, sometimes, it can beasier that way (to introduce one element at the time, for instance). In best examples, this gives thankful results: for instance, "1/0" with a strictly limited universe, was a sort of test-area, display case of an entire society, oportunity given by limited universe with clearly defined elements.

Superfightfight is no 0/1, that's for sure. But for the most of it's existence it's been a kind of comic i described above; recently, it went in different way that seems to want to start from a clean slate, but the old sff will follow is for some time. (Thankfully, birdie didn't erase old archives - i don't like when people do that, specially if there's been a year or so history of a comic, it should be available somewhere on site. Here, they're in the same archive and there is continuity, after all). so i'll talk about old and later move to the new.

Anyway, no matter what you think, you have to at least get a chuckle at how cynically minimalistic the choice of elements was. So minimalistic that it doesn't allow anything unpredictable or intriguing to happen in a comic. One thing is sure - this choice allowed birdie to speed up and simplify his production: not being able to give anything unpredictable, he doesn't even have to try. Not being able to go beyond a few pre-set jokes, he has to go on beating a dead horse. decidedly using several hand-drawn sprites, no background and ms paint as a tool, he is simply forced to produce a comic, from the script to a finished product, in a matter of seconds. Ironic, isn't it?

Anyway, here go the rules:

1. Ludwig is an evil, one-eyed, one-armed bunny. He hates burt.

2. Burt is a good-natured dinosaur.

3. Carlos is a french bear. Everyone ticks him off by calling him a gay.

4. Ludwig has got a bunch of henchn who are very stupid. Most of the time, one of them is present.

5. There is a sun that observes everything with a kind of knowing ambivalence, often strikes people with a thunderstroke and is sad for having no hands.

6. Other available characters: celebrities and a female version of henchman, hit on by carlos.

7. Sff slang is a mix of aol talk and rap slang.

8. Characters often display made-up martial arts. One person jumping and hitting other, whilE yelling a name of the kIck, constitutes as a punchline.

9. One character insulting other, preferably in a slang, constitutes a a punchline.

10. Pop culture reference constitutes as a punchline.

11. Any display of previously mentioned characterization (calling carlos gay, henchman showing how stupid it is) constitutes as a punchline regardless of how funny it would be in some other universe.

12. Background: flat blue.

13. Art: a set of sprites, one for each character, sometimes altered a bit, usually to display a martial arts kick.

14. Means: ms paint.

Oh, yeah:

15. Apparently, characters are parts of a band. Readers don't really find that out until late in a comic. This info is scattered over the archive here and there, but not consistently or noticeably. Until recently it didn't seem to make a difference anyway.

You got to admit, it's tempting to try something like this; challinging your resourcefulness by limiting your comic this way. Kind of like von trier's "dogma 101". But lets see what these rules do to sff:

First, thanks to a talk that is a mix of a few trendy slangs, strong presence of celebrities and pop references (specially in field of music) that have even been given a status of punchline, even the fact that characters are a band - the whole comic gets a subcultural feel. Sff perhaps works as a display case of a made-up subculture, or even constitutes as one (provided a lot of popularity). Though, rather a mock-up display case because it's too simplified to grow into a cult. Not that it was the intention of author anyway.

I gotta say that this plentifull of pop references, as wall as slangcan be aut-off for me. I know it was a put-off when i was reading sinfest. Ok, i come from a country where all films and albums come belated, so ecchoes of some subcultures don't reach me and i'm often not even interested letting them reach me. But then, it's not me that is the problem: it's the comic that is aimed to members of a particular subculture, and people outside of it (which means, majority of the worl heh) are bound not to get it. in sinfest's case, it turned out that the subculture it was talking to, was rather wide on net, thus comic's popularity. Sff's target audience is less strict in cultural sence, although there are other limiting factors that i might mention later. no shame, i didn't get some jokes because i didn't get the references. But in sff's case, as i sAid, sliding over a comic is so easy, so a lot of those references slide unnoted as well.

Constant fighting and yelling of punch technique names consisting of, again, pop references, is a parody of pokemon-like animated action shows, so it seems. But since there's no other aid, specially visual, this parody isn't instantly reckognisable.

Now, strange universes work in different ways. Check all things that constitute as punchlines. Most of them aren't funny. But in sff universe, they are funny, because so say the rules of the universe. In it's universe, repeating a joke that wasn't even funny the first time, is funny.

There are various examples of such universes in which different rules apply, so they take some adjustment to be enjoyed. Take a theatre show featuring a good improvisational acter. Tucked up in your seat, you're slowly dragged into his universe where he can even say some very stupid things, you'll still enjoy. And laugh. But he won't say those things at the beginning - he knows that first he has to drag you in.

Basically, if you accept the rules of sff universe, you'll enjoy it's jokes, perhaps even more with every repeat. How much is sff able to make you obey it's rules, is the important question. I can't really say, but i'd say chances are 50/50. And you definitely have to have talent for irrational thinking. Those who don't, won't see much more than stupid jokes repeated; they'll keep thinking that the comic is the way it is because that's an easy way for birdie to have an updating comic. Which is, actually, true: with this conception, he can make a dozen of comics daily (his rules allow him to batch out scripts, just as well as finished comics) and then forget about it for a year or so - and still never stop updating. Rules mentioned previously, although he probably didn't define them directly, are cynically made up to allow him that. Close your eyes at this obvious fact and you have a chance to be dragged into comic's universe and his rules.

Now, from the perspective of our universe, i think that show-stealers are sprites themselves. That is, character designs; burt's sleepy face, sun's two-toothed mug, carlos's instant anger, together with their immovability, no change in their expressions, are hillarious themselves, and sometimes, just imagining them saying those things with those expressions, makes you laugh instead of a joke.

How to improve such comic? Not much by improving it's art obviously. Switching to hand-drawing would change comic entirely, make it something totally different (though very possibly better). Birdie could've spent more time on writing particular jokes. Remember "calvin and hobbes", lots of it's jokes were lingering on a very few premises that are rehashed through plenty of comics (like the one where reality counteracts with calvin's imagination) and still, watterson would always find a new edge that made it funny yet again. Birdie doesn't enrich his comics with new edge (only in a few instances, like when carlos grows a moustache, but even then, casually). Of course, one could argue that adding new premises equals adding elements to a set i numbered earlier, thus diluting them. Some could say that taking more time and effort to make comics would contradict the nature of comic that it's produced very fast (and perhaps that some of spontaniousness would be lost). Again, these are arguable point, but sff, in this phase, is so limited by it's rules (set in comic's history, previous comics, rather than directly defined and written somewhere) that it didn't have much space to move, or improve.

Thus the only thing birdy could do in order to move and improve, was to start a new comic. With same characters and similar in spirit, but still very different.

But slowly, first he went to changing facial expressions and altering sprites more often (alas, not followed by changes in writing), experimenting with vector graphics, until he finally switched to hand-drawn. Birdie seems eager to better his work quickly, which, i feel, is the reason for asking for a review too. A very logical move. Making the old Sff might've been easy, but it's also a routine. Probably boring routine.

New sff (sff: year one, heh) starts at the beginng where burt and carlos decide to start a band. Ludwig and his henchmen soon enter the stage as shady characters. A few big differences: continuity, though often interrupted by outbursts of drink-induced nonsensical behaviour; unusually lot of puking in these new comics, which, together with drunkness, bad gigs and dirty streets, forms a more realistic picture of underground culture, as oposed to the one from previous incarnation of sff, that we could call, iconic, or symbolic.

Birdie (surprisingly to his sprite past) appears to be a compent artist for what he aims to; this might be the first time i see a webcomic influenced by it's fanart, as designs of Burt, carlos and others seem inspired by some of renderings of his characters by guest artists. Those are very likeable designs, specially burt. art sure needs some shaping up, mostly in reign of finding comic's art style; i can see sff filled with heavy hetching and black-white contrasts; i can't imagine it coloured, really. But leave that decision to birdie and we'll see what he comes up in making his art complete. He could also use some more pre-thought in spacial arangement and scenery, because characters sometimes look like they're just floating around on different heights. On the other hand, i like vertical format he often uses.

So, birdie finally decides to tell a conventional story of his characters. Change, as much an improvement as it was inevitable; story tells of a fast succes of burt and carlos's band, provided with their notoriety for bad playing, all spiced with jokes that aren't much better than those from previous incarnation, though with continuity in background, they're passable (talking from our universe, of course ;-) ). It is intriguing that birdie uses more space to tell of character's low life and rotten minds than of actual events concearning their succes. However, in a dection he choose, he'll have to spend time on second as well, in order for his story to make sence in the end. i am, for instance, interested to see details about their meteor sucess. However, i don't think that birdie should neglect on low life elements.

Well... I presume that birdie wanted me to talk about the actual incarnation of his comic more. It's promising but it's not much. There are a lot of comics in new incarnation, but thanks to slow pacing (scattered with drunkness) sff is still not at the place where i can see where birdie is going with this Comic; conception isn't clear yet; so i was talking mostly about what sff could be, not so much about what it is now.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Nochnoy dozor (Night Watch)

There’s a scene with an airplane, we think that we saw something, a sort of a bird running into an engine. Our fears are confirmed when a plate starts tumbling around, as if caught by the storm. We see a loose screw on a steel panel on the plane. Screw finally falls out and we follow it’s long fall from a great height on which an airplane was flying, finally through the chimney and through ventilation shaft, right into a cup of coffee that one woman has just preparing. Noticing that, woman empties a cup and finds a screw. She stands for a moment there, wondering how could’ve that screw ended in her coffee. Indeed, what does that plane have with that woman? Is there a connection between them? There are such invisible connections everywhere, it’s witchcraft, I tell you. “Night Watch” film by Timur Bekmambetov is a film about witchcraft. And then, there is an entire underground army keeping an eye on those connections, keeping powers in balance.

Take another scene from the beginning. An unhappy guy comes to a modern day witches apartment. A woman of an ordinary look tells him that she can bring his loved one back to him, but she has to kill her unborn baby because it would keep drawing her back to the other man. Then he watches some black magic ritual that his loved ones feels on her body quite a bit, and in the moment a woman needs to finish it all by clapping her hands, he sees, as if through a dream, two men struggling with her, doing everything just to stop her from clapping her hands.

“Night Watch” is the first feature by Timur Bekmambetov, who could be considered a represent of modern Russian cinema. Of course, sensation that “Night Watch” was might give him opportunity to shoot outside Russia, in countries that lend incomparably better conditions for filming. Too bad because in follow up he seems to have lost some of his native sensibility. But later about that.

One of the nicest things about “Night Watch” is that it is in Russian language. Not that I have anything against older Russian films, but it’s nice seeing it used in such modern context, in a film with trendy film narration style. It gives impression that Russian cinematography is moving on from their fascination with topics of the past but also that interesting things are happening somewhere else, not only in English-speaking countries. I know that some people won’t watch Russian films because they consider Russian language annoying. I’ve heard that about some other languages as well – coming, I guess, from being too used to films on English. Of course, this is right stupid, not only because they lose a lot more than a few good films, but also because of a trans-cultural experience that is hearing a film in its native language.

Did I ever say how strongly I’m against dubbing films? Dubbed films are nothing short of hilarious, even if they’re done well like in Italy (not only one-voice-dubs-all like in Poland). I’m happy that my country is one of a few where films are still subtitled.

Part of the modern sensibility of “Night Watch” is it’s dynamic, MTV-influenced film language, with fast crosscutting, fancy camera movements and no hesitation to use CGI, supported by photography that makes images rather slick, even plastic. I am very cautious toward this kind of film language. It is a style spread mostly through MTV music videos, that appeared to be influential to directors whose prime target was MTV audience (think: Joel Schumacher). I believe that this language appeared because of the need to attract a viewer quickly, by fancy but superficial imagery; To keep him entertained and engaged by fast tempo, so that he wouldn’t have time to realize how empty and substanceless the message they’re sending to him it. It’s a way to produce a highly attractive material quickly – quickly, because such material can be rather shallow, and in industrial production of videos and film, giving depth to something requires more time and effort than just shooting something with moving camera and then chopping it up in editing. But then again, progress is a progress, and there’s quite a few good directors who make this kind of film language a mean and not a point, and manage to make good, insightful films using it. Some of them are Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, run”), Daren Aronofski (“Requiem for a dream”) and Timur Bekmambetov.

Therefore, camera following a screw falling off of a plane in the air and similar imagery, often impressive by it’s idea, not only by it’s execution. But then again, with Bekmambetov, sometimes they cross the line of showing off and look unnecessary; Plus, as I said, photography in film often looks too plastic, unreal, and that feeling remains with us through the film. Impressive things on visual side include careful use of colour (prevailing of grey and dirty tones) to achieve atmosphere and just as careful choice of actors (for instance that Galina Tynina, actress who plays woman transforming from an owl, is at the same time attractive and strangely resembling an owl); Obligatory use of animation is here used probably better than anywhere else: animated flashback to a mythical pre-history is here triggered by a character flipping through a flipbook he made (you know – one of those games where you make a short animation by drawing frames on the edge of a notebook). Choice of actors, objects and scenographies (two lonely solitaires in the middle of the field, for instance) is so good that I imagine that film would be no worse or less impressive if it was made in conventional film narration.

Now, the thing is “Night Watch” is based by a rather huge epic novel of the same name by Sergei Lykianenko, and it suffers from a lot of same things as, for instance, film version of “Catch-22”: too much things to stuff in two hours, and too careful balance to be maintained. Film is, in a lot of ways, a slideshow, a quick browse through the richness of ideas and messages from the book. Nope, I haven’t read the novel, but film lets me imagine how rich, complicated and carefully crafter the book is. We can see that from plenty of characters whose possibilities aren’t used nowhere near enough, from the scraps of storylines that let us conclude that there’s something more to it, and from the ending that is so anti-cathartic that it makes the film seems more like one episode from some series, that like a feature that stands on it’s own. The end is rather disappointing, but that’s because director, as it’s inevitable in cases of filming such complex novels, decides to follow one story out of the bunch, and has to scrap all others without even giving them proper conclusion. This is perhaps more a burden that follows filming books that aren’t filmable, than Bekmambetov’s fault. Happily, there’s an announcement of the sequel at the end, and news arrive that parts 2 and 3 are, indeed, in production. Pre-planned sequel might, in this case, be a big save.

But Bekmambetov isn’t always in this form, I’ve seen his 2001’s “Arena”, a film he directed later in (believe it or not) Roger Corman’s production. In his exploitation on modern Hellenic epics like “Gladiator” and “Alexander”, he made sure to put in a lot of twists in that formula (based on old Corman’s film) to make it unusual, but this is still rather bland feature. It is partly because he engaged Playboy models like Karen McDougal and Lisa Dergan in main roles, rather than real actresses, so not only they never manage to sound convincing in dramatic scenes, but their silicon beauty gives film a feel of one of soft-porns from Playboy production. Throw in a lot of melodrama, and Bekmambetov’s film language this time only supports the superficial feel of the film. That one’s definitely not worth watching, especially not if you’re expecting porn, since film rather moderate on that side.

But Bekmambetov seems to be an eccentric author, one of those capable of making good and bad films almost parallel. Announced sequel of “Night Watch” has, perhaps, enough initial potential to direct him to the right way once again.